Gavin Green reviews the 2014 Geneva motor show

Published: 05 March 2014

The highlight of my Geneva happened before the show even opened. The day before the first press day, an electric blue McLaren P1 parked outside my central Geneva hotel. Then another P1 (in grey metallic) joined it. Two P1s! That’s about four per cent of global production to date. (They’ve made 50 – 325 to come.) Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, they drive into mine. Amazing.

In what was an unusual Geneva show in many other ways, the star car – at least from a British perspective – wasn’t even on display.  We got merely a snatched glimpse at the Jaguar press conference of the new 3-series rivalling, aluminium-bodied, four-cylinder (from a new West Midlands factory!) XE small saloon. This is probably Jaguar’s Evoque, the new model that should finally pump up the volume of the famously under-achieving (in sales, if not engineering) Coventry car maker. If it looks half as good as the new F-type coupe, which was on display nearby, Jaguar should comfortably pick up loads of 3-series/A4 buyers who fancy a change.

Elsewhere, weirdly, we had BMW extolling the virtues of front-wheel drive, having poo-pooed it for at least 30 years, and Renault showing a baby car that was rear drive. Even more oddball from BMW, the new 2-series Active Tourer prioritized space and functionality, a first from BMW, and rather at odds with the big sign over its stand and its supposed key brand value – Le plaisir de conduire.

I thought the Active Tourer looked a bit X1-ish lumpy but there’s no doubting its cabin qualities, and you know it’ll race out of the showrooms, causing further pain to Ford, Peugeot, Vauxhall, and the other beleaguered mass makers. The BMW brand just keeps expanding away from its heartland. You wonder if the marque’s increasing ubiquity will one day be its downfall, but there’s no sign of that happening just yet.

Meanwhile, the rear-engine rear-drive Renault Twingo was cute and should be a hoot to drive. The only apparent downside of that rear motor is a tiny boot.

My favourite small car at Geneva was the new Peugeot 108/Citroën C1/Toyota Aygo. I own a Peugeot 107 and I love its simplicity, its character and its all-round economy. The new one is more grown up, but still small, light (just over 800kg) and still has the simple glass tailgate and other intelligent minimalist touches that enhance the ownership experience rather than cheapen it. Shame it now has two rear parcel shelf stays (the old one only needed one) and a boot light – think of that extra weight!

The best looking small hatch – in concept form, but the production version will look virtually identical – was the new Mazda2. I can’t recall too many small cars with this much styling attitude, and continues Mazda design boss Ikuo Maeda’s great work, following on from the Mazda3. If it drives half as well as the Mazda3, it may well be the choice B-class hatch.

I liked the elegance of the grand Mercedes S-class coupe – so much more appealing than recent bling Benzes – and the Maserati Alfieri looked stunning, at least until CAR editor Phil McNamara told me he thought it looked like a TVR. I couldn’t get that out of my head every time I looked at it, after that.

Volvo was also a show star. New design director Thomas Ingenlath is about to transform Volvo style, and the latest Concept Estate is the last of his trilogy of cars hinting at the new XC90. It was superb, one of the most handsome estates I can recall: fashion meets functionality. Terrific interior, too.

While Geneva, like most motor shows, is more about style than tech, there was of course a serious side to the Palexpo. The first tech highlight, for me, was the superb TFT dash of the new Audi TT. For the first time, all the display functions can be shown on the main facia, so that means no unsightly central screen, simplifying a very handsome cabin. It also means, when you do your Nürburgring laps, your main display can be a map of the ’Ring (your progress is tracked) and a stopwatch. Neat. More day-to-day convenient, your satnav display can also be on the main display (tacho and speedo shrink and jump to the bottom of the display). The handsome Lamborghini Huracan had the same set-up and, no doubt, a Golf will soon.

Tech highlight number two was more long-term but possibly more profound. Liechtenstein-based company Quant previewed an ingenious new type of flow cell battery – they call it nano flow cell – that potentially can solve range and refuelling/recharging issues. Developed in Switzerland, it can give a range of up to 370 miles, can offer great power and, more significantly, can be refuelled just like a petrol car. Two tanks carry electrolytic fluid. When the battery is almost dead, simply pop into your local garage, replenish the two tanks with the separate electrolytes, and keep on driving. Flow cell batteries aren’t new. But this application, in a car, certainly was. An engineering boss of a major car maker I spoke it thought this was a potential game changer, albeit a good few years from production.

OK, back to the show catwalk. My favourite production car at the show was the Citroën C4 Cactus, French functionality at its old-fashioned and delicious best. A full five-seater, with versatility to carry bikes/skis/baby prams etc, it weighs just over 900kg yet offers all the room and practicality – and better mpg – than most of the road car-based small SUVs/crossovers that now proliferate. It’ll be cheaper than these bloated blighters, too (UK prices likely to start from £12,000).

Cactus highlights include the lack of a conventional dash – individual pods give the essential information. This makes the front view especially airy and liberates forward space. Just as appealing are the seats (soft and squishy, like the best French cars of yore) and especially the front pair. There is no central cubby, instead an armrest/central cushion divider gives the impression that you’re driving on a front bench seat, increasing shoulder space, as well as sociability. Simple, but brilliant.

I want one. Mind you, as the two P1s outside my hotel growled away to their underground garage/bunkers, I quite fancied one of them, too. Preferably in grey, not bright blue.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience